Prester John
Chapter III: Blaauwildebeestefontein

Public Domain

The Pilgrim’s Progress had been the Sabbath reading of my boyhood, and as I came in sight of Blaauwildebeestefontein a passage ran in my head. It was that which tells how Christian and Hopeful, after many perils of the way, came to the Delectable Mountains, from which they had a prospect of Canaan. After many dusty miles by rail, and a weariful journey in a Cape-cart through arid plains and dry and stony gorges, I had come suddenly into a haven of green. The Spring of the Blue Wildebeeste was a clear rushing mountain torrent, which swirled over blue rocks into deep fern-fringed pools. All around was a tableland of lush grass with marigolds and arum lilies instead of daisies and buttercups. Thickets of tall trees dotted the hill slopes and patched the meadows as if some landscape-gardener had been at work on them. Beyond, the glen fell steeply to the plains, which ran out in a faint haze to the horizon. To north and south I marked the sweep of the Berg, now rising high to a rocky peak and now stretching in a level rampart of blue. On the very edge of the plateau where the road dipped for the descent stood the shanties of Blaauwildebeestefontein. The fresh hill air had exhilarated my mind, and the aromatic scent of the evening gave the last touch of intoxication. Whatever serpent might lurk in it, it was a veritable Eden I had come to.

Blaauwildebeestefontein had no more than two buildings of civilized shape; the store, which stood on the left side of the river, and the schoolhouse opposite. For the rest, there were some twenty native huts, higher up the slope, of the type which the Dutch call rondavels. The schoolhouse had a pretty garden, but the store stood bare in a patch of dust with a few outhouses and sheds beside it. Round the door lay a few old ploughs and empty barrels, and beneath a solitary blue gum was a wooden bench with a rough table. Native children played in the dust, and an old Kaffir squatted by the wall.

My few belongings were soon lifted from the Cape-cart, and I entered the shop. It was the ordinary pattern of up-country store--a bar in one corner with an array of bottles, and all round the walls tins of canned food and the odds and ends of trade. The place was empty, and a cloud of flies buzzed over the sugar cask.

Two doors opened at the back, and I chose the one to the right. I found myself in a kind of kitchen with a bed in one corner, and a litter of dirty plates on the table. On the bed lay a man, snoring heavily. I went close to him, and found an old fellow with a bald head, clothed only in a shirt and trousers. His face was red and swollen, and his breath came in heavy grunts. A smell of bad whisky hung over everything. I had no doubt that this was Mr Peter Japp, my senior in the store. One reason for the indifferent trade at Blaauwildebeestefontein was very clear to me: the storekeeper was a sot.

I went back to the shop and tried the other door. It was a bedroom too, but clean and pleasant. A little native girl--Zeeta, I found they called her--was busy tidying it up, and when I entered she dropped me a curtsy. ‘This is your room, Baas,’ she said in very good English in reply to my question. The child had been well trained somewhere, for there was a cracked dish full of oleander blossom on the drawers’-head, and the pillow-slips on the bed were as clean as I could wish. She brought me water to wash, and a cup of strong tea, while I carried my baggage indoors and paid the driver of the cart. Then, having cleaned myself and lit a pipe, I walked across the road to see Mr Wardlaw.

I found the schoolmaster sitting under his own fig-tree reading one of his Kaffir primers. Having come direct by rail from Cape Town, he had been a week in the place, and ranked as the second oldest white resident.

‘Yon’s a bonny chief you’ve got, Davie,’ were his first words. ‘For three days he’s been as fou as the Baltic.’

I cannot pretend that the misdeeds of Mr Japp greatly annoyed me. I had the reversion of his job, and if he chose to play the fool it was all in my interest. But the schoolmaster was depressed at the prospect of such company. ‘Besides you and me, he’s the only white man in the place. It’s a poor look-out on the social side.’

The school, it appeared, was the merest farce. There were only five white children, belonging to Dutch farmers in the mountains. The native side was more flourishing, but the mission schools at the locations got most of the native children in the neighbourhood. Mr Wardlaw’s educational zeal ran high. He talked of establishing a workshop and teaching carpentry and blacksmith’s work, of which he knew nothing. He rhapsodized over the intelligence of his pupils and bemoaned his inadequate gift of tongues. ‘You and I, Davie,’ he said, ‘must sit down and grind at the business. It is to the interest of both of us. The Dutch is easy enough. It’s a sort of kitchen dialect you can learn in a fortnight. But these native languages are a stiff job. Sesuto is the chief hereabouts, and I’m told once you’ve got that it’s easy to get the Zulu. Then there’s the thing the Shangaans speak--Baronga, I think they call it. I’ve got a Christian Kaffir living up in one of the huts who comes every morning to talk to me for an hour. You’d better join me.’

I promised, and in the sweet-smelling dust crossed the road to the store. Japp was still sleeping, so I got a bowl of mealie porridge from Zeeta and went to bed.

Japp was sober next morning and made me some kind of apology. He had chronic lumbago, he said, and ‘to go on the bust’ now and then was the best cure for it. Then he proceeded to initiate me into my duties in a tone of exaggerated friendliness. ‘I took a fancy to you the first time I clapped eyes on you,’ he said. ‘You and me will be good friends, Crawfurd, I can see that. You’re a spirited young fellow, and you’ll stand no nonsense. The Dutch about here are a slim lot, and the Kaffirs are slimmer. Trust no man, that’s my motto. The firm know that, and I’ve had their confidence for forty years.’

The first day or two things went well enough. There was no doubt that, properly handled, a fine trade could be done in Blaauwildebeestefontein. The countryside was crawling with natives, and great strings used to come through from Shangaan territory on the way to the Rand mines. Besides, there was business to be done with the Dutch farmers, especially with the tobacco, which I foresaw could be worked up into a profitable export. There was no lack of money either, and we had to give very little credit, though it was often asked for. I flung myself into the work, and in a few weeks had been all round the farms and locations. At first Japp praised my energy, for it left him plenty of leisure to sit indoors and drink. But soon he grew suspicious, for he must have seen that I was in a fair way to oust him altogether. He was very anxious to know if I had seen Colles in Durban, and what the manager had said. ‘I have letters,’ he told me a hundred times, ‘from Mr Mackenzie himself praising me up to the skies. The firm couldn’t get along without old Peter Japp, I can tell you.’ I had no wish to quarrel with the old man, so I listened politely to all he said. But this did not propitiate him, and I soon found him so jealous as to be a nuisance. He was Colonial-born and was always airing the fact. He rejoiced in my rawness, and when I made a blunder would crow over it for hours. ‘It’s no good, Mr Crawfurd; you new chums from England may think yourselves mighty clever, but we men from the Old Colony can get ahead of you every time. In fifty years you’ll maybe learn a little about the country, but we know all about it before we start.’ He roared with laughter at my way of tying a voorslag, and he made merry (no doubt with reason) on my management of a horse. I kept my temper pretty well, but I own there were moments when I came near to kicking Mr Japp.

The truth is he was a disgusting old ruffian. His character was shown by his treatment of Zeeta. The poor child slaved all day and did two men’s work in keeping the household going. She was an orphan from a mission station, and in Japp’s opinion a creature without rights. Hence he never spoke to her except with a curse, and used to cuff her thin shoulders till my blood boiled. One day things became too much for my temper. Zeeta had spilled half a glass of Japp’s whisky while tidying up the room. He picked up a sjambok, and proceeded to beat her unmercifully till her cries brought me on the scene. I tore the whip from his hands, seized him by the scruff and flung him on a heap of potato sacks, where he lay pouring out abuse and shaking with rage. Then I spoke my mind. I told him that if anything of the sort happened again I would report it at once to Mr Colles at Durban. I added that before making my report I would beat him within an inch of his degraded life. After a time he apologized, but I could see that thenceforth he regarded me with deadly hatred.

There was another thing I noticed about Mr Japp. He might brag about his knowledge of how to deal with natives, but to my mind his methods were a disgrace to a white man. Zeeta came in for oaths and blows, but there were other Kaffirs whom he treated with a sort of cringing friendliness. A big black fellow would swagger into the shop, and be received by Japp as if he were his long-lost brother. The two would collogue for hours; and though at first I did not understand the tongue, I could see that it was the white man who fawned and the black man who bullied. Once when Japp was away one of these fellows came into the store as if it belonged to him, but he went out quicker than he entered. Japp complained afterwards of my behaviour. ‘‘Mwanga is a good friend of mine,’ he said, ‘and brings us a lot of business. I’ll thank you to be civil to him the next time.’ I replied very shortly that ‘Mwanga or anybody else who did not mend his manners would feel the weight of my boot.

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